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The Beagle whirled silently through the void. Round and round she looped, suspended by centrifugal force at the end of a mile-long tether from her long- expended propulsion stage. Lit by the sun on one side, and an eerie red Marsglow on the other, she looked more like a big tuna can riding on an oversized plate than a daring ship of exploration. But brave explorer she was, and the plate her shield and only protection against the incandescent blast of her imminent Mach 30 entry into Mars' atmosphere. A technological marvel, her inner workings included overten thousand mission-critical electronic circuits. As she approached her trial by fire, all but one were working perfectly.
ABOARD THE BEAGLE, APPROACHING MARS
OCT. 26, 2011 14:22 CST
"Oh, Houstonnn, we've got a problemmm," Luke Johnson drawled in a Texas accent with a singsong pitch.
Beneath the Beagle's primary electronics console, Major Guenevere Llewellyn overheard the comment and set her mouth in a grim line. He could say that again. She rubbed her hands on her grease-stained NASA flight suit and stared up at a world of wires and fuses, circuit breakers, capacitors, switches, voltages, currents, resistances, temperature readouts on pyro bolts-and a clock with twenty-seven minutes left on it.
As she tinkered furiously, Gwen muttered half to herself and half to her anxious crewmates. "It doesn't make any sense. Why aren't the pyros firing? We've got plenty of power, and three redundant circuits for delivering the ignition spark."
Shortly after launch the better part of a year ago, when Mission Commander Townsend had separated the spacecraft from the upper stage, the burnt-out booster rocket had remained connected to the Beagle by a mile-long tether, dangling like a long counterweight on a string. After firing a small rocket engine on the Hab module, Townsend had set the craft spinning; at the end of its tether, the whirling upper stage produced enough centrifugal force to provide the crew with sufficient artificial gravity for their long journey to Mars.
But if Gwen couldn't disconnect the tether in time, the Beagle's Mach 30 aeroentry would be uncontrollable, and the ship would be burned to a crisp.
Stumped, she tried to think of anymalfunction that could have caused the breakdown. "The pyros are a new type, designed to prevent inadvertent ignition by static discharge. Maybe this close to Mars they got too cold, chilled below their ignition temperature. If I shunt over some extra power from the life-support system, that might warm them enough to light."
"Worth a try, but better hurry," Colonel Townsend said. "Do it."
Gwen swiftly threw some relays, switching the surplus LSS power into the pyro prewarmers. In seconds, however, it was obvious that the move would be ineffectual.
The flight mechanic crawled out from beneath the control panel and faced the mission commander. He wasn't going to like what she had to say. "Colonel, there's no choice. I've got to go EVA and pull the manual release."
"Major, no one is going EVA around here until I give the order. That's a last resort. Now try shunting the backup power from the RCS actuators to the pyro ignition system."
Gwen sat down at her control station. She knew it wouldn't work, but arguing with the bomber-jacket-clad ex-fighter jockey would waste precious time. If she made quick work of it, there would still be time for the EVA. Barely.
``Aye, aye, sir." Gwen sat down at her control station. Townsend gave her a grin and a thumbs up. That's not going to do it, Colonel. Townsend flipped the switch to de-safe her board. ``Okay, fire on five. Five...four...three...two...one...Do it!"
On Townsend's order, Gwen hit the firing switches.There was no response. Townsend cracked his knuckles in an unconscious admission of stress. She could see he didn't want to let her go EVA, but he'd have to, and soon.
``Colonel, I've got to suit up." Gwen started to rise, but the colonel's hand shoved her back down into her seat.
``At my mark..." Townsend said, ``fire again." She could see the sweat on his creased forehead.
Gwen hit the switch. ``No go, sir" she reported. Twenty-four minutes.
``All right, shunt all the life-support power to the igniters. Switch to batteries for the lights."
The last alternative to EVA. Gwen's fingers flew overthe power regulator controls. ``Aye, aye."
The internal lights of the habitation module dimmed. Ruddy Marsshine illuminated the cabin interior.
Gwen stabbed down on both power switches. No response.
The colonel is losing it, Gwen thought, startled by his uncharacteristic language. Twenty-three minutes left. ``Colonel. Thisisn't going to work." She turned to him, trying to keep her own professional cool. ``The only solution is for me to get out on the roof of the Hab module and release the tether manually. Now."
``There isn't time." `
`Luke's got a Marsuit all ready. It's the only way."
Townsend drummed his fingers on the control panel while his chief engineer felt precious seconds ticking away. ``All right then, Major. There's no time to verify with Houston, and I won't waste time arguing about who's best for the job. It's my prerogative as commander to approve your suggestion. Go for it."
``Yes, sir." Gwen leapt across the cabin toward the spacesuit locker. Big Luke, the mission geologist, had her Marsuit waiting. Marked with her old army helo unit insignia, it was thinner, more flexible, and much easier to don than a standard spacesuit. Designed for field work on the Martian surface, Marsuits were not rated for space. But despite the qualms of the NASA safety mafia, everyone who had ever worked with them knew they were the best choice for fast EVA work as well.
``Don't try to play hero," Townsend warned. ``Just stay cool."
Gwen took it on faith that Luke had checked out the suit correctly; there wasn't time to do it herself. Twenty-one minutes.
It took her seconds to strip off the NASA flight suit, revealing an athletic body clad in an Atlanta Braves T-shirt and cutoff blue jeans. The geologist helped her wriggle into the EVA gear, then strapped on an auxiliary cold gas jet pack.
The Marsuit fit like a second skin. ``If my pants were as tight as this suit, they'd never let me into church back home," she commented wryly. Luke chuckled as she took the transparent globular helmet from him. ``Okay, folks, I think I'll take a little stroll outside."
``By the book, Major," Townsend said.
As she crossed the cabin, Gwen could hear Townsend giving instructions to Luke and Rebecca Sherman, the excessively sophisticated ship's doctor and chief scientist. ``I'm going to start programming in emergency maneuvers. You two, take your emergency stations at consoles two and three. As soon as Gwen goes outside, you watch with the multi-cams. If you see anything that looks even the slightest bit odd, I want you to scream. Is that clear?"
Professor McGee, the other egghead on board, was nowhere in sight. Probably off somewhere dictating to his journal. As mission historian, there wasn't much else he could do. We'll all burn up in a little while if I don't get this done, Gwen thought. Not much of an ending to his story.
``Okay, Major, it's your play. Good luck."
With a practiced hand, Gwen crossed her two red braids behind her neck, removed her Atlanta Braves cap, and clamped the helmet down to seal the Marsuit. Then she entered the airlock, closing the hatch behind her. Through the viewport she could see Dr. Sherman making double- sure it was dogged shut.
Gwen checked the airlock readouts. Praise the Lord, at least this system was in working order. ``All secure inhere. Commence pump down."
``Pumpdown initiated." Townsend's voice was muffled inside Gwen's helmet. The lock began to hiss. Because the Beagle's cabin atmospheric pressure was kept at a modest five pounds per square inch, no prebreathing was necessary, and the depressurization operation proceeded swiftly. As the pressure dropped, the Marsuit began to stiffen.
Gwen looked out the window into space as the hiss and throb of the evacuation pumps grew fainter. As she stared open-mouthed at the wild profusion of stars, with nothing to do but wait, a poignant memory of a long-ago clear night in rural North Carolina briefly possessed her.
She was twelve, looking out her bedroom window on a cricket-haunted night, the full moon hanging peacefully above her apricot tree. Pebbles rattled against her window. ``Gwennie, let's go," whispered the boys from the neighboring farm. She climbed down the vine and crawled past the kitchen window,where she could hear her parents talking about her: ``I don't know how Gwen's ever gonna get herself a boy if she keeps acting like one. Did you hear how she beat the tar out of the Nichols boy in the schoolyard last week?"
The kids had listened for a bit, giggled conspiratorially, then sneaked off into the barn, where they jumped out of the loft onto haystacks, yelling ``Geronimo!" When it was Gwen's turn to leap, it seemed as if she hung in the air for minutes, her heart pounding, while the moon and stars spun around her.
It had been her first taste of weightlessness, of space....
Finally, the hatch opened, and the last bits of air puffed out of the airlock, sparkling with instantly rozen specks of water vapor. They looked like gold dust in the harsh sunlight of outer space. Time to top holding your breath, girl. Only eighteen minutes left. Gwen gingerly edged out onto the exterior white-painted skin of the habitat module, her magnetic boots clanging hollowly.
Up the ladder. Gwen made her way to the tether-deployment unit, slowly unreeling the umbilical safety line that would keep her attached if her magnetic boots slipped off the hull. There's the windlass, just a few more steps. Uh-oh. The umbilical is too short.
Sixteen minutes left.
There was only one thing to do and no time to argue about it. Better not even tell Townsend. Gwen detached the safety umbilical from her suit. Okay, now take it easy.
She grabbed the handholds onto the roof of the Hab. The unobstructed view of Mars from the slowly rotating spacecraft was spectacular, but it made her dizzy. Feeling like an ant crawling across the outside of a yo-yo, she paused, feeling nauseous.
Townsend's voice practically shouted inside her helmet, scratchy with static. ``How's it going, Major?"
``Almost there, Colonel."
``Well, get to it. We've only got fourteen minutes before aeroentry."
Gwen scrambled forward and grabbed the windlass. Made it. ``Ready to initiate manual release."
Gwen put her hands on the lever, braced her boots under the windlass baseplate, and pushed down hard. No give. Dammit, is the stupid thing vacuum-welded?
She tried again, but the manual stillwouldn't budge. She considered trying to cut the cable, but discarded the idea. The spectra tether was overthree inches thick. With her sheath knife as her only cutting tool, hacking the cable would take far too long. A secondary set of pyro bolts held the windlass to its baseplate. The bolts had refused to fire-but maybe they could be detached entirely.
Gwen took a wrench from her tool belt and hesitantly placed it on the bolt's hex. If that bolt fires when I twist it, I'm fried. But if we don't get loose,we're all fried. She put both hands on the wrench handle and braced her feet on the windlass. ``Okay, stand by me, Jesus." Then she pulled with all her might.
The brittle bolt broke with a snap but no explosion. The force of the push hurled Gwenaway from the windlass, but she caught a handhold and swung herself back to the Hab roof. Okay. Now for the other three bolts.
``What's going on upthere, Major?"
``The manual release won't move, so I'm snapping off the pyro bolts."
``Snapping the bolts. One down, three to go."
``Major, Gwen, try something else. If those bolts should fire-"
``No time, sir." She continued with her work.
``Major, this is an order-"
Gwen cut him off. Okay, number two. She braced, pulled, and got another snap. Catching her handhold, she swung back onto the roof. Ten minutes left. Better hurry.
The third bolt broke free with eight minutes remaining. Then, confident, Gwen placed the wrench head around the final hex and pulled. But this time the boltwouldn't give.
``Come on, break, damn you!" She had one trick left. Fully braced, she kicked down on the wrench handle with all the force she could muster.
Everything changed in a blink. The bolt snapped, the whole windlass tore free of the Hab module-and Gwen lost her footing. She grabbed for a handhold, but the Beagle was now separating from her at a velocity of fifty meters a second. She tumbled off into space.
Watching the ship recede into the distance, Gwen whispered ``Geronimo," her voice echoing strangely inside her helmet. Then she fired her cold gas jets to negate her spin. For a moment, she hung weightless with the entire panorama of Mars, the diminishing ship, and a vast, star-studded sky surrounding her.
The spell lasted only a second before she realized that Townsend would feel obligated to maneuver the ship and come after her. With only six minutes left, the risk was too great. She switched on her suit radio.
``You're home free, Colonel; suggest you prepare for aerocapture."
``Major, where the hell have you been? Where the hell are you?"
``I've separated from the ship, sir."
Townsend's voice was hard and no-nonsense. ``What's your bearing?"
Gwen looked at the ship, then in the opposite direction.
``You'll find me in Pegasus, sir, butthere's no time."
``Pegasus? Gotcha. Hang in there, Major,we're coming for you."
Gwen knew it was useless to argue. That colonel was a damn fool; he'd lose the mission to try to save her. She saw a retro flare on the speck representing the retreating ship, and felt a tear forming in the corner of her eye.
He'd never make it. Still, it was good to have friends.
--From First Landing by Robert Zubrin. (c) July 2001, Ace Books, a division of Penguin Putnam, Inc. Used by permission.
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